The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

There can have been few better times in the last 100 years or so to read this book. It was written in the 1960s by the American historian Barbara Tuchman and it deals with August 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War.

I have read several books on this period, trying hard to understand the reasons for what we think of today as a war of unexampled pointlessness yet destructiveness. This is the best I have read. She portrays brilliantly the unthinking nationalism and direly stupid autocracy of Europe’s governing elites. British readers, brought up like me on the myth of unstinting British heroism in both world wars, will find the cool analysis of British intransigence and disorganisation in the weeks preceding the outbreak of war and, especially, the early and crucial weeks of the campaign, unsettling. And any American reader who thinks the French deserve the nickname of cheese eating surrender monkeys (ironically created though it was) can be disabused by her account of amazing French heroism.

It is shocking still to read of how atrocity and gross intimidation were written into the German approach to war; these were formal policy,  not isolated incidents. So fearful were they of French and Belgian snipers that they adopted a disciplined approach to horror, shooting whole villages, including children, with bureaucratic dispatch, as reprisals.

Tuchman describes the events through personalities and the telling anecdote. When Europe is going through economic convulsion, it is timely to remind ourselves just how corrosive nationalism has been in Europe in the relatively recent past. We still see vestiges of it in the Balkans and elsewhere. World War I was, according to this distinguished and readable account, ultimately caused by a collective derangement over ‘national interests’. Where have I heard that phrase invoked in the councils of Europe recently?


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